Thursday, May 03, 2012

To a Student in My Composition and Rhetoric Class (Introduction to Literature)

Dear Student,

I was very happy you recently emailed me about a research essay topic you want to pursue. That you felt strongly enough to ask a question is gratifying. You wouldn't know this, but I begin every semester hoping that students find plays, poems, and stories that move them profoundly, or at least profoundly enough to ask such questions as you have.

Unfortunately, after fifteen weeks of class this term, you alone have fulfilled this hope. Your classmates, though nice people and smart enough, have rarely shown the desire or self-motivation to vigorously explore the literary texts in our course. They have read, or skimmed. They have glibly opined. They have written papers. However, I feel they have not been taken by any of our texts. They were unimpressed by Hamlet's grief and by how severely he reckoned every possible course of action. They eschewed, or seemed to, the lonely and noble reflection of Jane Kenyon's "Let Evening Come." They saw no kinship between themselves and proud Sylvia in Toni Cade Bambara's "The Lesson." 

It takes passion to read anything, but especially drama, poetry, and fiction. It takes conviction to write, but especially to write an academic essay. What I have really been trying to tell and teach all of you is to be passionate, assertive, bold, and confident. If you can muster these attitudes for a class, you can muster them in your life. As much as any knowledge, skill, or wisdom that you take from school, these attitudes will serve you well in life and carry you far.

But there is more than utility to these attitudes. They have more value than getting you a job and helping you succeed in a career. No, these attitudes are the formula of emotional depth and perspective. The happiness literature offers is understanding happiness. From our best writing we learn that happiness is complex, fleeting, easily unrecognized, and surprisingly connected to outlook and effort. And the wisdom literature offers is that of adventure, for the worlds created in literature lead out to reality and to knowledge that spans centuries of human endeavor.

Just two examples of the happiness and wisdom I mean, and then I will close. Think on the rich, lasting happiness from the end of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind":
Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
What if my leaves are falling like its own!
The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawakened Earth

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
Shelley describes a happiness greater, if less pure, than a child's. It's a lasting, hopeful happiness. It's the happiness of knowing life continues inexorably. To Shelley, we are instruments of a powerful universe in motion. Such happiness comes from being bound sonically and temperamentally to that universe. We readers, too, joyfully recognize the intertwining rhyme Shelley uses. We see it and connect with him, and his world. We hear the trumpet tones and know this sound calls just as well in our world.

We take from Shelley a wise happiness, a kind of knowledge not found in movies, television, games, or other activities--all of which possess their own wisdom. Yet we talk about wisdom and knowledge as if they were only about having facts and being able to recall them. Consider, then, the wisdom of the speaker in James Baldwin's "Sonny's Blues":
All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours. I just watched Sonny's face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn't with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing -- he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.
The man admits at the outset he is limited in his knowledge about music. Yet, like the improvising musicians he observes and hears, he builds on what he knows and tries to expand it. Baldwin's writing here focuses on hearing and watching--listening to Sonny play and watching him expend effort. Baldwin searches and finds in the music a dialogue between Creole and Sonny, a dialogue that turns into Sonny's musical exodus or perhaps a musical baptism.

This is the wisdom of hearing and observing, yes, but more the wisdom of sharing and connecting. What sings in this prose is how the speaker voices--attempts to articulate on the fly--how he understands Sonny and Creole. He wants to partake of their interplay. He learns by doing and by actively being.

The happiness and wisdom of literature are unfathomably rich. My student, I wanted you and all your classmates to learn this. Excepting you alone, I failed this semester. I failed because your classmates did not want to be reached and did not think it was worth their energy. I failed because I was not focused or skilled or apt enough to overcome their extraordinary apathy and complacence.

I will retire as a college teacher at the end of this semester. I cannot foresee teaching an Introduction to Literature course again. After 17 years of teaching, I have lost the drive to lead any more classes on the perilous journey through the language and stories of the past, and through the struggle of writing now. I have ceased to be an effective teacher, if ever I was one.

My student, your letter is a comfort to me as I depart. As you go your own way in life, I hope some of what we have read this term stays with you and grows with you. I bid you, as Tennyson's "Ulysses," to seek newer worlds beyond the sunset. That is my intent. Perhaps we will meet again.

Larry Tanner, a teacher


  1. Are you seriously thinking of quiting the teacher gig? What will you do?

  2. I'll simply not teach. I already have a full-time gig (and career, I suppose). I teach because I like it, at least until recently.


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